Ham and peanuts in Smithfield

A while back, I discovered through genealogy research that one of my ancestors was originally from Smithfield, Virginia. When my younger son told me out of the blue one day that he wanted to “find a really good ham,” I knew Smithfield was the place to go.

We headed to Jamestown to take the free ferry across the James River to Surry, then we drove about fifteen miles to the town of Smithfield.

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When we first arrived, we were hungry and craving some ham, so we visited Taste of Smithfield, a combination restaurant and country store that serves some delicious Southern food and sells a variety of Smithfield meats, Virginia peanuts and other local food and gift items. I had the sliced ham, mashed potatoes with ham gravy and green beans with bacon and onions. The ham was divine, and the mashed potatoes were the creamiest and tastiest I’ve ever had.

After our lunch, we took a walk around town, crossing Church Street to see some beautiful old homes. We visited the Isle of Wight County Museum, where we looked up information on our ancestors and discovered that one of them, my 4th great-grandfather, was actually the first mayor of Smithfield, as well as an attorney, state delegate and U.S. representative. We explored the museum, learning about Smithfield’s history in the curing of ham and growing of peanuts.

We also visited the old Smithfield courthouse, dating from 1750. Over the years, this building has been used as a private residence, courthouse and hotel. It was restored to its 1750 footprint beginning in 1959.

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My boys wanted some ice cream, so we went to the Smithfield Ice Cream Parlor on Main Street. It was a slice of the past, with wood-paneled walls, old-fashioned milkshakes, floats and malts and delicious ice cream.

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We finished our day discovering my ancestor’s home on historic Church Street, and his grave at Historic St. Luke’s Church, Virginia’s oldest church.

It was a beautiful spring day, and my boys and I enjoyed Smithfield’s old-town charm and learning more about our family history!

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Highlights from a weekend trip to New York City

New York City is one of my favorite places in the world. It’s like an onion with so many layers of history to peel. Every time I visit, I discover something new.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I got to take a weekend trip to NYC for a concert at Irving Plaza. We stayed at our favorite “secret” hotel, the Comfort Inn Lower East Side. This inexpensive hotel on the edge of Chinatown has a parking garage at the back of the block that you can reserve via the BestParking app and get great weekend rates. There’s free wifi and a free continental breakfast, and it’s easy to get in and out of Manhattan via the Manhattan Bridge.

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We found a tiny seafood bar just down the street from the venue in the East Village, Bait & Hook, that had delicious fried oysters. We grabbed a couple of picklebacks and some Guinness before we headed back to the hotel.

We spent Saturday exploring the Metropolitan Museum of Art, particularly the Egyptian and European art wings.

While heading back to the subway, we found a cute brewpub in Hell’s Kitchen for lunch. NY Beer Company had paninis, burgers and other sandwiches, pizza and a huge selection of beers, including a bunch of local New York options.

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My last (and favorite) discovery was the most charming little bar right down the street from our hotel. Les Enfants de Boheme is a French bar and restaurant with a full cocktail menu, cheese and charcuterie boards, mussels and various entrees. The Saturday night we visited, NYC was hit by a snowstorm, so we hung out at the bar, soaked up the atmosphere and watched the snow fall. It was New York magical.

Unique Chateau in Alsace, France

Near the Eastern France/Germany border, the region of Alsace is a unique mix of French and German culture. Over the region’s long and storied history, ownership of this region has passed back and forth between the two countries time and again, resulting in shared influences on the cuisine, language and culture of the area.

The Chateau du Haut Koenigsbourg is perched on a mountain near the town of Orschwiller, and is a fascinating look into the region’s past. Originally built in the 12th century, the castle and grounds were intended as a fortress in a strategic location perfect for watching all the main roads in the area. Defensive structures were added when the castle was rebuilt after the original was destroyed in 1462. Unfortunately, the castle was again destroyed in 1633 and sat in ruins for two hundred years, until Germany took ownership of the region again and the town transferred the property to Kaiser Wilhelm II, who restored the castle to its former glory.

Since 1908, when restoration was completed, the Chateau du Haut-Koenigsbourg has looked down over the Alsace plain, first as an estate of the Kaiser, then as a French national historic site.

On the day we visited, the mountain was foggy, with snow in the air. We were practically the only visitors, and got to take in the unique perspective of the castle in winter. It was easy to imagine how isolated, and yet how cozy and secure this chateau would have been in the colder months of the year. As with any castle fortress, there is an exterior “village” area where the workers (blacksmiths, coopers, farriers, etc.) would have plied their trades, then an interior keep where the family would have had their living quarters. Drawbridges and heavy doors separate the interior living quarters from gardens, pens for animals and the like. A small chapel, an armory and a room full of hunting trophies are highlights of the grounds tour.

At the conclusion of the grounds tour, there is a restaurant featuring delicious local fare, such as quiche Lorraine and blueberry tarts. In addition, a gift shop offers souvenirs related to the castle and general historical items. I picked up a medieval cookery/receipt book and some souvenirs for the kids.

The Chateau du Haut-Koenigsbourg is convenient to other Alsatien towns. We stayed in Colmar, but Strasbourg is only about 50 minutes away if that’s your home base in Alsace. Our visit was in early November, which is a great time to visit and avoid the crowds if you don’t mind a little cold.

 

Yelp Helps Again

My husband and I recently took off to Miami and West Palm Beach, Florida for a quick pre-holiday weekend getaway. When we were planning what to see and do, I relied heavily on Yelp to guide us to some unique and fun locations, and Yelp did not disappoint!

When I use Yelp, I don’t necessarily just search for “restaurants” or “bars.” I tend to use more search terms like “Cuban jazz” to pull up places known for specific things. Yelp told me that a club called Ball & Chain was the place to go. On the night we visited, a Thursday, there was a three-piece jazz group performing in the outdoor courtyard at the back of the club. The atmosphere was relaxed and elegant. The courtyard had couches and chairs and an outdoor bar. We grabbed some drinks and checked out the band, which was actually playing on a bandstand that was designed to look like a giant pineapple!

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After that band finished their set, we moved inside to the large, open main room. The club dates from the early 1930’s, and throughout its history it has hosted interesting personalities – from local criminals and their business associates to black musicians and performers in the 1940’s and 1950’s in the pre-Civil Rights-era South, including Billie Holiday and Count Basie. In the late 1950’s, the neighborhood surrounding the club became a Cuban enclave, as Cubans fleeing the political upheaval in their homeland came to the U.S. By the late 1960’s, the location had transitioned to a furniture store, then later sat vacant for years before being purchased by a local real estate investment group. After extensive renovations, Ball & Chain reopened as what it had originally been intended to be – a nightclub offering the best in live music.

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Inside, after a rather interesting performance ON THE BAR TOP involving a scantily-clad woman and a gentleman in a three-piece suit – sparklers and confetti were involved – another band set up in the front corner of the bar. A raucous salsa dancing party ensued, with amazing afro-Cuban music and old-timers stepping in to soft-shoe for a few steps. It was an authentic Little Havana experience that I’m glad we got to experience, and it’s all because I used Yelp to do a search for “Cuban jazz.”